Following the devastating Haitian earthquake in January 2010, CADA's founder, Joanne Penney, and her daughter Sarah, a trained dancer, were among the many BVI residents looking for a way to help the thousands of Haitians whose lives had been destroyed in a matter of minutes. Mobilizing needed supplies donated by local residents, Sarah, along with friend and social worker, Lauren Keil, and fellow Cada Player, Eunice McDonald, traveled to Haiti shortly after the quake to help distribute a 40-foot container of relief goods.
The island's needs were overwhelming: food, water, clothing and shelter were just some of what the quake survivors required, but what impressed the women most were the children. Homeless and helpless, countless youngsters had lost their parents, or had parents who were unable to care for them. "It's so incredibly powerful to experience such widespread devastation and poverty," says Sarah. "We decided there and then to commit to the children." Returning to Tortola, the three women, along with Joanne, formed Hands on Volunteers (HOV). They describe their mission as "a charitable, grassroots initiative based in the British Virgin Islands with membership open to all." Explains Sarah, "We decided to focus on a small number of children where we know we can make a difference."
The response has been enormous. Companies, individuals, families and clubs were among those answering the call to help, with the Cada Players in the front line of support. In all, fifty dancers and support crew participated in last year's performance of "Steppin Out", presented in four performances in May and June of last year. The talent on display was prodigious. The multi-national cast came from the BVI, numerous Caribbean islands, the US, Canada, South Africa, UK and the Philipines. It was made up of a microcosm of BVI society that included lawyers, students, teachers and health workers – each with a penchant to dance, and to help.
The program notes for "Steppin Out" contained brief bios of the cast and crew. Each provided a verbal snapshot of their motivation to help and their commitment to making the project a success. Akim Johnson, musician, lifeguard, and community youth mentor wrote, "I was happy to join in this inspirational work that has brought so much talent together to help the children in Haiti." While Camroy Peters, musician and student at the BVI's Community College, reflected, "Seeing my composition, 'Uprise,' included in the show feels good, and I hope it helps both the performance and the people struggling in Haiti."
The show was first staged in May and received such enthusiastic local support that a third performance was put on in June. Together, the three shows raised $8,000. Sarah and Joanne produced the show and Sarah, a theater graduate of the University of California at Sacramento, also directed the production, danced and choreographed many of the numbers. The show's importance, she contends, is as much about raising awareness and promoting performance art as it is about raising money.
Most of the dancers are amateurs, although some, like Sarah, have had training and experience. All pulled together to put on a professional show that was well-staged and beautifully danced. "Our community is filled with hidden talent," says Joanne, who was gratified by the response to the show, which included nine original dance pieces and three new musical compositions. Two slide shows created by Lauren Keil, one of Haiti and one of the production's process were also presented. Assistant Producer, Eunice McDonald, saw the show as part of the fabric of island life. "This is the priceless part of a community effort such as "Steppin Out", she says, "and these folks are now a tight ensemble of friends and artists who are ready and willing to carry on for Haiti, the BVI and the arts."
Many of the cast are equally involved in Hands on Volunteers and some of the show's dancers have already traveled to Haiti to help. Hands on Volunteers is just that – hands on. Each trip is financed by the volunteers themselves, who carry along much needed supplies and donated funds, which they put directly into the hands of the people they're meant to help.
All the money that's raised, and so far it's been over $60,000, is used for food, education, shelter and medical expenses. The outreach has broadened through other volunteers and connections as well. BVI residents have run the Chicago Marathon and swum Virgin Gorda's North Sound in support of HOV. Members in California put on an art show in Sacramento featuring student work by the city's Leonardo da Vinci School, as well as drawings by HOV's children in Haiti. Students of Cedar School International in Tortola, who've helped from the outset, have held yard sales, produced a Rock Concert and made a quilt. Lauren Keil's documentary photos of HOV's work have been compiled in a book that tells the story of Haiti's on-going struggle, even now two years after the quake.
In September, HOV opened the doors of Harmony House and welcomed nine children to start off a program of quality child care. Located in a stable neighborhood of Port of Prince, Harmony House is spacious, bright and airy. Ranging in age from three to sixteen, the children attend a nearby school and play on the sports field next door. For most of the children, the beds provided by BVI supporters are the first they've ever called their own. Many other "firsts" in their lives, such as showers, regular meals and school are filling their world with a sense of security.
"About every three months, we send a visiting team made up of people with life skills to share to work with the children," says Lauren, "and volunteers come from both home base and as far away as California." Individuals, as well as teams, step up to help. In 2011, Canadian Elizabeth Coggins spent seven months on the ground helping HOV in Haiti. "Without Elizabeth, Harmony House would not have happened," says Joanne, "and her work in rescuing children from high-risk situations was, literally, heroic."
HOV also networks with other agencies and community members to maximize resources. In April, Rotary will hold its Caribbean regional convention in Haiti. While in Haiti, Rotarian Dr. Annelene Clausen and dental assistant and Cada Player Fay Barron, will spend three days providing dental care to children at Harmony House and the nearby community. Rotary of Road Town has donated an entire mobile dental office to make this outreach possible, and the unit will also be used in the BVI when not on site in Haiti. "It's really remarkable how many busy professional people here are willing to put their lives on hold and say 'I'm willing to go,'" explains Joanne.
For more information on Hands on Volunteers' work in Haiti, and how you can help, go to their website www.handsonvolunteers.org.